ABUL RIZVI. Morrison’s U-Turn on Migrants for the Bush.

Scott Morrison has given another exclusive, this time to news.com, on his ideas to encourage more skilled migrants to settle in the regions and smaller cities and away from the major metropolitan centres. While it’s great to have a prime minister prepared to talk about immigration and population, he again failed to explain why usage of existing visas for the regions and smaller cities has steadily declined since he first became immigration minister under Tony Abbott and why Peter Dutton took steps to strangle the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme. Will Morrison now reverse Dutton’s changes?

Table 1: Usage of State-Specific and Regional Migration Visas

Year Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme State/Territory Government Nominated Visas Total State-Specific and Regional Migration Visas Portion of Skill Stream
2008-09 8,811 14,055 33,474 29.2%
2009-10 10,213 18,889 36,568 33.9%
2010-11 11,122 16,175 37,410 32.9%
2011-12 16,471 22,247 47,733 38.0%
2012-13 20,510 21,637 51,924 40.3%
2013-14 16,583 24,656 49,922 38.8%
2014-15 12,380 26,050 42,183 33.0%
2015-16 12,269 24,665 40,101 31.2%
2016-17 10,198 23,765 36,494 29.5%

Source: Home Affairs Website

State-specific and regional migration visas were largely developed under the Howard Government to encourage more skilled migrants to settle in the regions and smaller cities and away from the major metropolitan centres. From negligible levels in 1995, the number of such visa types and their usage grew strongly through the 2000s and peaked under the Rudd/Gillard governments at almost 52,000 people representing over 40 percent of the skill stream in 2012-13. The strongest user of these visas has always been South Australia with Adelaide counted as regional for migration purposes.

Since then, usage of these visas has steadily declined to 36,494 or 29.5 percent in 2016-17 (we do not know the outcome for 2017-18 as the full report for that year is still embargoed). 

But why did this decline occur? Was it just neglect or a lack of demand from the regions and smaller cities? 

Or does the government have any specific concerns about these visas that contributed to the decline? If so, will it make public any research done on the effectiveness of these SSRM visas? 

While we do not yet know the outcome for 2017-18, we do know that Peter Dutton has made access to the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme significantly more difficult such that going forward, take up of this visa will fall significantly. Dutton had also increased the pool mark for general skilled migration. This will reduce the potential size of the pool of skilled migrants that state/territory governments and regional employers can choose from.

If Morrison is serious, a first step he could take is to reverse these two of Dutton’s actions. Other options government may consider to again increase the number and portion of visas in the SSRM group are discussed here.

Morrison also highlights the wide variety in immigration and population growth across Australia. This is illustrated in Table 2 below:

Table 2: Two Australias

Local Government Area Population Growth

2006-16

Median Age Portion overseas born Portion with Tertiary Qualifications Median Household Income
Broken Hill Minus 8.7% 45 13% 8.6% $965pw
Melbourne (CBD) Plus 84.7% 30 55.1% 44.8% $1,484pw

Source: ABS Census

This further reinforces his argument to see slower immigration-driven population growth in the major metropolitan cities (to bust congestion) and greater immigration-driven population growth in regions and smaller cities.  Which is all very well but has the slowing use of State-Specific and Regional Migration visas since he became immigration minister contributed to the problem?

Composition of Australia’s Population Growth

Morrison also told news.com “when it comes to population growth at the moment, there are 10 extra people that have got on the bus. Just over four of them are temporary migrants. Just under four of them were born here, a natural increase. And only two of them are permanent migrants.”

And he is right except he fails to mention that in the past, a substantial portion of those temporary entrants have gone on to become permanent residents. The changes to immigration policy settings Peter Dutton has passed onto new immigration minister David Coleman will mean fewer temporary entrants will be able to become permanent residents and as a result we will see fewer temporary entrants arriving and more temporary entrants departing than would have otherwise been the case. These temporary entrants are mainly overseas students, working holiday makers and skilled temporary entrants (former sub-class 457).

In addition, because of our ageing population and below replacement fertility rate, the contribution of natural increase to population growth will steadily decline into the future. 

The combined result will be a slowing rate of population growth and a faster rate of ageing. For example, due to Australia’s relatively young immigration intake, Australia’s median age is currently around 37 with the portion over 64 at around 14.7 percent. This is quite a deal younger than countries such Germany (median age 46 and portion over 65s at 21.45 percent); Italy (median age 46 and over 64s at 21.25 percent); the UK (median age 40 and over 64s at 17.3 percent) and Japan with a median age of almost 47 and over 64s at 25.1 percent). 

Abul Rizvi was a senior official in the Department of Immigration from the early 1990s to 2007 when he left as Deputy Secretary. He was awarded the Public Service Medal and the Centenary Medal for services to development and implementation of immigration policy, including in particular the reshaping of Australia’s intake to focus on skilled migration. He is currently doing a PhD on Australia’s immigration policies.

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